As I pushed off to run toward the baseline of the basketball court, I felt something crunch in my left calf. I immediately knew that I’d torn my Achilles tendon. I also immediately knew that, having just torn the largest tendon in my body, I was in for a slow recovery process that would take between six months and a year.
As I walked (limped really) off the court, I was thinking about the long days ahead of cast and crutches, limited mobility, and the tedious process of eventual physical therapy. Tough thoughts for someone who makes physical activity a part of most days and prizes self-sufficiency.
The next week was a blur of MRI and X-rays to confirm the injury, an early morning surgery, a cast and crutches, and pain in my leg. The weeks and months after surgery stretched out as my mobility returned very slowly. The physical life I knew was entirely disrupted. It is now months later and life is getting back to normal. But along with a surgical scar tracing the back of my left calf, I have several lessons from the process that are with me permanently.
We live in wonderful, breakable bodies
Working through my injury and recovery reminded me that our bodies are breakable. Breakage is different from failure, of course. Using our bodies can break them. But using our bodies is a gift; a gift not given to everyone.
When I was sidelined, I was reminded how much I love using my body in many ways: hiking, running, bounding up the stairs to my office, throwing a baseball with my sons, walking with my wife and our dog. I love to use my body and be active; when you use things, including your body, sometimes those things break. It’s the cost of the transaction. While my body was temporarily shut down, I was reminded that it was worth it.
I was also reminded that our bodies tend to break more as we age. Again, this is just the cost of the transaction. As Tennyson said, “Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.”
Our bodies are ceaselessly changing. But I wouldn’t trade my aging body — and the bumps, scars, and marks of memory that are on it — for a newer “more perfect” one. Aging in our bodies with joy, not regret, is the better path.
We see more when we slow down
The limitations of cast, crutches, and a walking boot upended my normal activities. Carrying a morning cup of coffee to sit and read, getting dressed, and doing daily tasks were all dramatically different — foreign, really. Getting up and down bleachers at sporting events for our boys was cumbersome at best. Moving across the college campus where I work ran on a much different, much slower timeline. My injury required me to change my patterns and my timelines. I was forced to slow down. That was particularly uncomfortable for me.
Although I was fortunate to have limited physical pain, it “hurt” mentally and emotionally to have my normal life so drastically altered. My physical reordering was paired with a mental and emotional reordering that was at least as profound.
But slowing down brought some benefits. I was there for family breakfasts rather than starting my day with an early morning workout. Students stopped me in the hall to ask about my crutches and our conversations turned to mini-mentor sessions. Mornings at the gym were replaced by mornings with reading and meditation. The view was different when I slowed down. Now that I can again choose to live at full capacity, I am taking time to slow down and take in a different view. My injury made me realize that I was missing things by always running at top speed.
Breaking patterns brings different perspective
Painful as it was, the new patterns that my injury imposed offered me new perspective. I saw more of what really mattered to me. Changing my morning routine showed me more about what was happening in the lives of our maturing sons. Asking my wife for help with daily tasks created time and place for conversation that we often failed to make when things were “normal.” Sitting with a coffee that my barista had to set out for me, since my crutches prevented me from grabbing it on the go as usual, pointed up how much quiet mornings of coffee and reading offer this introvert who has an extroverted job. Going through the day in a different way made me look at my days differently. I have happily done the work to hang on to some of that hard earned and different perspective.
We live and heal within communities
In the end, I was also reminded of the necessity of community in our lives. I got hurt playing basketball with Newman Center students at my university. Being a small part of that weekly community of motion, play, and prayer sustains me. My tendon was repaired by a community of nurses, doctors, and a wonderfully supportive physical therapist. My community of friends provided mental and spiritual support I needed during rough patches. My wife and the boys were along at every step with ice packs, carrying my books, helping me in doors, and generally being my “pit crew.”
All this support reminded me that we do not go through life alone. At the beginning and end of our lives — and often in the middle — we will need help from others in caring for our bodies or responding when our bodies fail us. It is impossible to simply live without the support of a community. More fundamentally, engagement with our community makes that living worthwhile. Even if we could live outside community, we should not choose to do so given all that we would lose.
I would not have chosen to tear my Achilles tendon that Friday morning when I headed to the gym. But months later, along with a scar on my leg, I take with me the need to appreciate our wonderful and breakable bodies, to slow down and look around, to get a different perspective, and to appreciate the communities we live in.